Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Movie Review: "The Monster Squad" by David Pretty

In the past I've looked at several films that have achieved a significant amount of nostalgic worship.  Some of these movies deserve a place on the pop culture pedestal and some don't.  In an example of the latter, it's totally inexplicable as to why The Monster Squad receives any sort of retro love.  To me, it's nothing more than a cynical pastiche of The Goonies, Lost Boys, and the Universal Monsters, with a little dash of Stand By Me's irreverence thrown in for good measure.

For what it's worth, here's the film's incredibly derivative trailer:

Andre Gower plays Sean, a pushy, obnoxious twelve year old dipshit who, along with his interchangeable cronies, fancy themselves monster enthusiasts. Headquartered in a tree house that looks like it was built by a team of civil engineers, Sean holds court over a host of Our Gang stereotypes: wise-ass Patrick (Robby Kiger), Fat Kid (literally!) Horace (Brent Chalem), chain-smoking (!) bad-ass Rudy (Ryan Lambert), shy Eugene (Michael Faustino) and his precocious little sister Phoebe (Ashley Bank).

This pack of underwritten creeps bone up on their creature-killing trivia while verbally abusing one another a la Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern in the infinitely superior Stand By Me.  Meanwhile, in a brain-dead script convenience, Dracula himself (Duncan Ragehr) conspires with his pals the Wolfman (Carl Thibault), Frankenstein's Monster (Tom Noonan), the Mummy (Michael MacKay) and the Gill-Man (Tom Woodruff Jr) to destroy a Macguffin, er...amulet which is comprised of "pure good".

Naturally, once every hundred years this amulet becomes vulnerable to attack and if the monsters succeed in destroying it well, then...ummmm, something BAD'll happen.  I guess.  Oh, and did I mention that this precious talisman just so happens to be sitting in the basement of a spooky house in the very same town where the Monster Squad has their base of operations?  

I had some hope going into this since I kinda liked director Fred Dekker's consistently surprising Night of the Creeps.  Not only that, the effects were provided by Stan Winston and Richard Edlund and the screenplay was drawn up by Shane Black of Lethal Weapon fame.

But when it comes right down to it, The Monster Squad feels like the product of market research, like a test screening checklist.  Kids like monsters, so let's cram four or 'em in there!  Oooo!  OooOoo!!! People liked those precocious brats in The Goonies, so let's stock this flick with a bunch of pale imitations!  Audiences also dig montages set to music like in Lost Boys so let's shoe-horn in one of those!  And, hey, folks got a kick out of kids using salty dialogue in Stand By Me a year ago, so let's have the little larvae use words like "shit", "faggot" and "tits" just for novelty value! 

Honestly it's no surprise that this film sunk into oblivion when it was first released; it had no clear audience.  It was too goofy and childish for adults and too violent and profane for its hypothetical target audience (i.e. kids who were the same age as the characters).  The likely reason it's popular now is because, for an entire generation of young adults, this was the first time they ever saw impalings, gory bits and the word "nards" used in a movie.  But, let's face it folks, breaking these childhood taboos shouldn't automatically qualify the film for nostalgic plaudits.     

Above all the film's biggest transgression is its shamefully lazy screenwriting.  Can anyone think of any other reason why Dracula (or "Alucard", that's never been done before) conveniently calls Sean's house and leaves a message other than to let the kid know that there's a legendary vampire on the loose?  Plus there's no way you can convince me that an older kid like Rudy would ever be caught dead hanging around with the rest of these whiny infants.  

The only reason I'm rating The Monster Squad as high as I am is because some of the special effects are fairly decent. The Mummy and the Gil-Man are well realized, but that's pretty much where my praise ends.  The werewolf design is absolutely terrible.  He looks like one of the John Carl Buechler's Ghoulies after it was hit with a Gamma bomb.  Tom Noonan, so memorable as the killer in Manhunter, actually gives a fairly nuanced performance as Frankenstein's Monster.  Unfortunately he's buried under an avalanche of wretched makeup that makes you pine for Jack Pierce's Karloffian creation from over eighty years ago!

To make matters worse, Duncan Regehr is a shamefully poor Dracula.  Despite the fact that he strangles little Phoebe and calls her a bitch (!), he's about as menacing as your average insurance salesman.  Then, in the cinematic equivalent of giving us a great big paper cut and pouring lemon juice all over it, the film gives us the truly execrable Monster Squad rap theme song over the end credits.

Honestly, this thing is a total failure.  It's a kid's film that I'd personally never watch again and one that I'd actually feel guilty showing to a kid.

        Tilt: down.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Movie Review: "Blue Velvet" by David Pretty

Like Twin Peaks which followed four years later, Blue Velvet is David Lynch's deconstruction of the 1950's, suburban, small town, Norman Rockwell idyll.  It begins with a litany of wholesome images: rescue trucks bearing genial firemen, crossing guards guiding winsome children across the street, yellow tulips blowing in the breeze, and an older gentleman dutifully watering his immaculate lawn.

Some of which can be briefly glimpsed in the film's deceptively tame trailer:

But since this is David Lynch's version of the American Camelot, it isn't long before our hirsute gardener is prone on the ground while his pet Jack Russell terrier playfully frolics in the jet of water coming from the now-upturned hose.  Then the camera tracks away into the surrounding lawn, past the blades of grass and into the earth below, which is roiling with beetles and other vermin.  The message is clear: Lynch intends to move past the false edifice of reality and plunge us into the dark netherworld which lurks below.

The stroke victim is revealed to be the father of Kyle MacLachlan's character, Jeffrey Beaumont.  Even here, Lynch evokes shades of the actor who played prototypically wholesome all-American dad Ward Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver.  It's just another sly wink from Lynch who would have us believe that even squeaky-clean 50's-era T.V. dads had hang-ups.       

Jeffrey returns to his timber-obsessed home town of Lumberton to visit his ailing dad and take care of the family hardware store.  While walking home from the hospital one day, he makes a grisly discovery: a severed ear discarded in a field.  He takes the ear to the police where Detective John Williams (George Dickerson) seems oddly nonplussed by its discovery.

Jeffrey soon meets the detective's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern) who suggests a possible link to the ear and a mysterious lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini).  Intrigued by the burgeoning mystery, Jeffrey hides in Dorothy's apartment to glean the truth but soon finds himself way over his head courtesy of the gas-sniffing psychotic thug Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

Dorothy is the unfortunate nexus for Frank's deviant interpretations of love and sex he seems willing to say or do anything to posses and control her.  Pretty soon Jeffrey's amateur investigations open up a veritable Pandora's Box of mayhem which invariably begins to infect his own psyche.

Midway through my first viewing of Blue Velvet, I began to realize, to my horror, that I was at the mercy of a director who was willing to do anything to shock and disturb.  Like so many other great films of note (such as Reservoir Dogs, The Exorcist and Deliverance), Lynch quickly lets us know that all bets are off.

Dennis Hopper's Frank Booth really showcased his aptitude for bringing scary, intense, and unconventional characters to life.  Booth's bizarre sexual proclivities (which include dry-humping, huffing amyl nitrite and gagging himself with the titular fabric swatches) seems terrifyingly real if only because it's hard to imagine that Lynch actually came up with something so weird.  Hopper really is tremendous here, walking into every room like a caged animal and employing the most shocking and profane language in order to bully what he wants from people.

As horrible as the language and moments of sexual violence can be, there are also some delirious scenes of coal-black humor.  If I'm not mistaken, this may be the very first time I've ever heard a character in a movie referred to as a "fuck".  When Frank grills Jeffrey about his favorite beer and his terrified hostage replies "Heineken" Booth freaks out and screams "Heineken!? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!"

Speaking of MacLachlan, he really does a great job embodying a complicated and unconventional protagonist.  Indeed he's the perfect cinema avatar for Lynch: semi-formal, polite, freshly-scrubbed, and just a bit off-center.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that the director is working through his own complicated thoughts when Jeffrey first indulges in voyeurism and then slips into moments of violence.

Hopper's performance may be the film's most flamboyant, but the most daring is surely Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Valens.  When the film was first released, critic Roger Ebert was genuinely upset by Lynch forcing his lead actress to film scenes of "public degradation".  Rossellini has since gone on record to say that these brutally impartial moments were integral to depicting the character as "somebody beautiful...yet...completely destroyed inside", essentially a "broken doll".

In the film's most shocking and contentious scene, Dorothy stumbles naked and bruised onto the front lawn of Jeffrey's house.  It's certainly a horrible moment but it's also based on something Lynch actually witnessed as a child, a sight that was clearly tragic, not titillating.  In Rossellini's own words, the scene is evocative of Nick Ut's famous photo of a young Vietnamese girl who's had her clothes and skin burned off by a napalm attack.  Although clearly a distasteful image, it's also unforgettable and representative of something much larger.

The principal cast is rounded out by some tremendous supporting roles.  Long-time Lynchian muse Laura Dern is the angelic flip-side of Dorothy's femme fatale, and she's possessed with just enough dark curiosity to kick-start the initial mystery.  Dean Stockwell also has a memorable appearance as Ben, an effete, nearly-comatose lounge lizard.  With his vacant, lip-synced rendition of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" (while creepily underlit by a work lamp), Stockwell instantly creates one of the most oddly iconic scenes in cinema history.

Indeed, Lynch proves to be a master of using music to establish moods. Witness Rossellini's Bobby-Vinton-by-way-of-Nico-from-Velvet-Underground rendition of the title track.  Also Julee Cruise's melancholy ballad "Mysteries of Love" is used to tremendous impact, although I suspect that it'd probably be a bigger party-killer then "Hotel California".

All told, Blue Velvet is a consistently startling, brave and innovative work of cinematic art.  It's the product of a single director's undiluted vision instead of decision by committee.  If you're tired of the doldrums inherent in cookie-cutter, paint-by-number screenplays, then look no further.  Just be warned: you'll be privy to a lot of genuinely dark and disturbing subject matter before that wacky clockwork robin shows up.  

        Tilt: up.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Review: "The Campaign" by David Pretty

The Campaign arrives at rather opportune time.  Ninety percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing.  We're smack-dab in the middle of a federal election which looks to pit a centrist sitting President paralyzed by Republican sour grapes versus an obscenely wealthy corporate shill who's willing to say or do anything in order to win.  Negative campaign ads are flying like spitballs in Grade Eight English class.

Although The Campaign is timely it's neither as clever nor as creatively weird as the reality it's trying to parody.  What could have been a viciously funny, sharp critique of the U.S. political system ends up being a series of increasingly wacky escalating hi-jinx that make you feel like you're watching a sitcom.

Not only does the film's trailer hint at these flaws but interestingly enough, it has a slew of footage which doesn't even appear in the final film.


Will Ferrell plays Camden "Cam" Brady, a shiftless, unethical, barely-conscious philandering lout who's return ticket to Congress gets renewed every year by virtue of running unopposed.  When the rich, opportunistic Motch Brothers (played by Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) are doubtful that the scandal-ridden Brady can fulfill their goal of establishing a Chinese-style sweatshop in the middle of North Carolina, they decide to assemble their own candidate from scratch.

Their patsy comes in the form of Martin "Marty" Huggins (Zach Galifianakis), a woefully unstylish, decidedly effeminate tourism director.  Thinking that he's just been tapped to do some good for his home district, Marty agrees to run against the entrenched incumbent.  

At first, the sweet and naive Marty gets chewed up by Cam in their first few encounters.  To improve his son's odds, wealthy industrialist Raymond Huggins (Brian Cox) retains the ruthless and laconic services of campaign strategist Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott).  Between his fraudulent metamorphosis and the rigors of dirty politics, Marty's wide-eyed innocence begins to fade, putting a strain on his marriage to the equally buttoned-down Mitzi (Sarah Baker).          

As one might expect, the campaign quickly becomes contentious.  At an early "civility luncheon", Cam blindsides Marty with incriminating photos of his "Chinese" pets as well as his work-out routine at Curves.  Marty fires back by challenging Cam's religious faith and waving around a "Communist Manifesto" that his opponent wrote when he was eight years old.  Cam turns around and accuses Marty's facial hair of being an Al-Qaeda sympathizer.    

Which brings me to the main problem with the film.  Although some of the initial gaffes and ridiculous charges are funny and have real-world precedents, the script escalates things to such ludicrous heights that both candidate would have been politically ruined if not thrown in jail.  Trust me when I say this, there's plenty of real-life political fodder which is a helluva lot more original, funny and believable then what we see here.  

But I don't want to take anything away from the exceptional cast.  Although Will Ferrell is essentially doing his Dubya-by-way-of-Clinton routine, he's certainly captured the perfect alchemy of pompous boobery and corn-pone hucksterism.  I especially loved watching him unravel in tandem with his campaign.  Confronted with "opposition" for the first time ever, Cam beings to crack up and at one point launches into a glorious tirade which culminates in him essentially speaking in tongues. 

I've always been a fan of the off-kilter humor of Zach Galifianakis (witness his brilliant turn as 1700's stand-up Nathaniel Buckner in The Comedians of Comedy).  Here he manages to bring a very funny and wildly original role to life.  Despite all of his peccadilloes, Marty Huggins still seems like the real quintessential American to me: horribly conflicted, repressed and mired in self-guilt.  I just wish the script was on the same level as Zach's efforts.  

Almost immediately Marty starts doing the same underhanded and despicable things his rival is doing, which is really out of step with the character established in the first half of the film.  In turn, this makes his eleventh hour confessional come off as incredibly hackneyed.  It comes to a point when I really didn't want to see either of these guys succeed.  I think it would have been a lot funnier and more original to see Cam's ultra-nasty campaign get undone by a "kill 'em with kindness" approach from Marty.     

Special mention has to go to Sarah Baker as Marty's equally oddball wife Mitzi.  I'm not sure how much up of what's up on the screen is performance or how much is just genius casting, but Sarah is note-perfect as a genuine Desperate Housewife.  The writers give her plenty of odd quirks (such as an owl fetish and an unhealthy interest in Drew Carey) but this really doesn't pass for character development.  Like her husband, Mitzi also does some pretty baffling things, presumably because the script demands it of her.

Dylan McDermott is hilariously intense and surprisingly deep as Marty's "go for the jugular" campaign manager Tim.  With his clenched deliveries and bouts of intoxication, you get the impression that Tim's self-hatred is palpable.  His ninja-like ability to spring up from out of nowhere results in some amusing visual gags, my favorite being when Mitzi grows frustrated by her husband's constant acquiescence and yells: "When did he become a part of this family!?!"  The resulting deep background focus revealing Tim sitting in their staring intently at them is oddly hilarious.

Also worth mentioning is Karen Maruyama as Mrs. Yao, who's been tasked by her boss Raymond Huggins to adopt a rather, shall we say, traditional approach to her job.  She manages to steal every scene she's in with her over the top line readings and outrageous take on Prissy from Gone With The Wind.  Equally on point is Katherine LaNasa as Rose Brady, Cam's emasculating trophy wife of convenience.      

The always-great Jason Sudeikis brings the funny as Cam's long-suffering campaign manger Mitch.  He's the perfect straight man for Will's dull machinations and burgeoning lunacy.  I loved his reaction to being CC'ed on an Cam's Anthony Wiener-inspired email and doing his damnedest to play "Lord's Prayer charades" with his dull-witted charge
A slew of formidable minor players round out the cast, but their roles are criminally shallow.  Brian Cox as Marty's dad Raymond is a crusty, miserable sonovabitch who has nothing but utter contempt for his son.  Brian's great, but his character has absolutely no other dimension and frankly it's something that we've seen a million times before.

Both John Lithgow and Dan Akroyd are squandered while going through the motions as cartoonish caricatures of the legitimately evil Koch Brothers.  Their plan is so nakedly villainous that audiences might be tempted to think that corporate crime is nothing but a script contrivance.  In actuality, all the writers really needed to do was take a look at any random page in a newspaper to give this fanciful material a bit of weight.

Jay Roach tries to import the same broad, over-the-top, Austin Powers approach here but it ends up being counter-intuitive.  I really wish screen writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell had shown a bit more restraint, since the wackiness really works against the very real message that the U.S. government is actually under the thrall of criminally negligent corporations.

Although the movie has its heart in the right place and serves up its share of cheap laughs, until The Daily Show, The Colbert Report and Fox News cease to exist, the exaggerated foolishness depicted in The Campaign will always pale in comparison.

     Tilt: down.   



Thursday, August 9, 2012

E.T. Roundtable - Episode One: "He's The Goddamned Batman!"

In our inaugural episode, the E.T. gang sound off on the following diverse topics:
  • "Chris Nolan is a talentless hack."  Or at least that's what a certain contingent of anonymous, whiney, dickless, fanboys are saying on the Internet about The Dark Knight Rises.   
  • Is The Amazing Spider-Man the reboot equivalent of a screen door on a submarine?  
  • The Hobbit suddenly becomes three films instead of two.  Epic storytelling or cynical cash grab?  
  • The new X-Men film will feature the Days of Future Past storyline.  Will studio pinheads try to incorporate the Shi'ar, Apocalypse, the Brood, Proteus, Dark Phoenix, The Morlocks and the Fall of the Mutants story line as well?           
  • The 23'rd Bond film Skyfall gets a promising new trailer.  Is this 007's Batman Begins?       

The Afflicted

Michael Chiasson is a movie, music and gaming connoisseur, a talented musician and vocalist and an unrepentant Star Wars prequel apologist.  For the record he is not one of the reasons why ET has an adult warning and most if us feel sorta guilty about surrounding him with a bunch of assholes.  If you aren't convinced that Mike's one of the nicest human beings on the planet by the end of the podcast then check out his blog for proof positive.   

Dean Langley is a pop culture scientist, a rabid console, PC and tabletop gamer, as well as an A-list contrarian.  He's also at least half the reason why Entertainment Tourettes comes with an adult warning label.

Sarah MacDonald single-handedly gives our motley crew some semblance of legitimacy. In addition to being an major authority on the horror film genre, Sarah is the diligent cartoonist behind the kitty-riffic webcomic Bunk.  She's also supremely confident that she'll be able to do her part to justify the site's content warning on a regular basis.

Mark Rose is a comic book fiend as well as a movie and T.V. junkie who holds nothing but contempt for what passes as entertainment today in Hollywood.  He also has a Rain Man-like capacity to remember everything that's happened in the music industry in the past thirty years.   Mark will also be the first to admit that he's another major reason as to why this blog is "adults only".

David Pretty is your host and moderator-in-vain.  You can read his entertainment reviews right here at ET., check out his table top gaming blog, or witness him yammer on incessantly about totally random crap via his Emblogification Capture Device.  Oh, yeah, he also wrote some crappy book.  Unlike his fellow panelists, he's polite to a fault and wouldn't dream of using profanity.

Making Sense of the Blurtings

South Park Season Five Episode One "It Hits The Fan", Bronies, Was Tom Waits The Inspiration for Health Ledger's Joker?, Damian Wayne.